Better data and systematic analysis are urgently needed to prevent human stampedes, which are likely to become more frequent with widening gaps in urban health indices and the growing threat of emergencies related to food, water and energy scarcity, say Frederick M. Burkle and Edbert B. Hsu.
Most of the 215 human stampedes recorded between 1980 and 2007 occurred in South Asia and Africa, with fatality rates nearly eight-fold higher in developing countries.
Stampedes are caused by either panic attempts to escape a threat or when people in a crowd rush to see something gratifying. The Ram Janki Temple stampede, which occurred in India last year (4 March), shared similar features to many of the developing world's deadliest disasters, say the authors — high crowd density, rising religious fervour, handout of scarce resources, failure to alert authorities and inadequate safety measures.
But high-quality epidemiological data are lacking — usually, what is known about these events is put together from anecdotal internet and news reports. Global disaster databases such as EM-DAT do not track human stampedes. And there is scant peer-reviewed literature to advance knowledge of the potential cultural or religious obstacles to crowd-gathering.
More needs to be done to understand stampedes, the authors argue. At a minimum level planning officials should remove potential bottlenecks, mark exits clearly, balance crowd dispersion, and offer reliable access points and safety valves.
The lack of formal information limits efforts to implement policy-level improvements, say Burkle and Hsu. And there is a perception that standards cannot be enforced.
But they highlight the Hajj in Saudi Arabia — one of the world's largest annual pilgrimages — as an example of where the introduction of traffic and safety rules has successfully prevented stampedes.